Monday, January 23, 2017

Liberty: A Review with a Focus on Writing Craft

Congratulations to Jessica Jacobson, a new blog subscriber, who won SOLDIER BOYS from last week's blog. 

When Alan Gratz, a prolific NC author, presented a workshop at SCBWI-Carolinas in 2010 on Plot and Pacing, my blog was only a few years old and I was learning how to review books. Fast forward to 2016, and I've decided to integrate writing craft instruction as much as possible into my reviews.  

LIBERTY (Scholastic, 2016), by Kirby Larson is the third in her Dogs of War series for readers in grades 3-7. As Gratz stated in the opening of his workshop, a good story must include conflict. "Kids won't read boring stuff." Authors must entertain early and set the tone of the book. How's this for the opening paragraph of LIBERTY:
Thomas Edison said, to invent, you need a good imagination and a pile of junk. Fish Elliott had both. Unfortunately, he also had Olympia. Fish heard her before she even poked her braided head through the loose board in the fence between their yards. (p.1)
What tone does that set?

Without one iota of info-dump, Larson shows the reader that Olympia isn't allowed to attend Fish's school because she's a Negro; his sister, Mo, works at Higgins Industries, which builds landing craft; his pop has enlisted in the war; Fish is battling the lingering effects of polio; and he's determined to rescue a dog from a mean neighbor.

Not bad for ten pages.

Gratz, using material from Vogler's Writer's Journey, talked about the importance of internal and external goals, which are both resolved at the end. For Fish, his internal goal is to have his father not see him as a cripple. "Fish would do whatever it took to be the kind of son that his father really wanted." (p 28). His external goal is to keep Liberty, the dog he rescues more than once.

Larson added depth to her story by incorporating an important secondary character. Erich is a German soldier and a French prisoner of war near Algiers. Sprinkled throughout Fish's story which takes place in New Orleans, the reader learns about Erich's goal: "He was going to do whatever it took to stay concealed, to stay hidden. He could not let anyone see the Erich within.... It was his only chance of surviving." (p. 37) 

Gratz said that the decision to act occurs in the first 25% of the book. Fish almost gives up on gaining Liberty's trust. "He wasn't going to find Liberty. It had been silly to think he would. Just like it was silly to think he could fix his leg." (p. 51)  After Olympia chides him that he shouldn't give up, he goes inside to do his secret leg strengthening exercises. His sister comes home bragging about one of Fish's contraptions that inspired a new idea at the plant and Fish is empowered. "He'd done something that would make Pop proud." (p. 57)

As Gratz pointed out using the Wizard of Oz, Act 2 includes the adventures along the yellow brick road. For Fish, that includes losing Liberty, riding a bike for the first time since he'd been diagnosed with polio, and interviewing Mr. Higgins at his plant for a school project.
Mr. Higgins rested against the railing. "They said we couldn't do it. But last year we deliver seven thousand LCVPs and a thousand LCMs...." He clapped Fish on the back. "Two things I've learned, Fish." He held up a plump finger. "Don't let others set the bar for you." A second finger. "And if you think you can't, you're right." (p. 121)
For Erich, clear across the ocean, his adventure begins when he sneaks aboard a transport that was taking Germans to a prison camp in the United States. "What's the worst they could do if they catch you?...Send you to prison camp?" his friend says (p. 90). When Erich arrives in New Orleans, the reader is on the hook. How will these two characters--who have no connection to one another-- meet? 

The climax of the book, as Gratz says, should be the moment that was promised in the beginning; the moment when the internal and external goals come together. In LIBERTY, that means both Fish and Erich performing heroic feats for Liberty's final rescue. Since I want you to read this book, I'm not including any spoilers! But in this tease, Fish recognizes similarities between Erich and some of his favorite people: 
Fish glanced over at Erich. He's eyes were as blue as Roy's. His smile as warm as Mo's. It was hard to think of him as an enemy. Maybe he had been. Maybe he still was, in some ways. But they were allies, too, over Liberty. (p. 185)
Erich gives Fish a carving of Liberty:
Fish stared at in wonder. It was Liberty in miniature perfection. He'd got her ears, her face, her shape, just right. "For me?" 
"Inside each piece of wood waits its true self, waiting to be revealed by the carver." Erich turned away from Liberty's pen. "This is true for people, too. We do not know what lies within until we are prodded into action." (p. 186)
This book for boys and girls will introduce younger readers to segregation and World War II in a gentle, yet provocative and meaningful manner. This would be an excellent classroom resource but sorry, I'm not giving my copy away. I have grandkids who are ready for this book; another novel commandeered for The Cousins Club

Monday, January 16, 2017

Soldier Boys: A Review and a Giveaway

Congratulations to Caroline McAlister  for winning TANGLED LINES on last week's blog.


Two soldiers, two boys. One American, one German. Prolific author Dean Hughes brings their lives, hopes, and dreams together in Soldier Boys (Simon and Schuster, 2001. Audio CD, 2016)

Spencer Morgan has just turned 15 in 1941. He longs to show that he is a man. He believes he'll accomplish that by joining the war effort and becoming a paratrooper--the toughest soldiers who receive the most respect. He daydreams about returning from action and impressing his crush, Lu Ann, with how brave and mature he has become. Although his father sees through his motivation, he reluctantly allows his son to drop out of high school and join. 

Spencer's superficial motivation is apparent. He wants to be a paratrooper in order to wear pants that blouse up, feel taller, do something hard, and be part of the best fighting group. He's also driven by his fear that the war would be over before he has a chance to accomplish his goals. 

On the other side of the Atlantic, Dieter Hedrick, has a similar ambition to be seen as a man. His story begins in 1939 while training with the Nazi Youth. He is ashamed of his parents who don't support Hitler; perhaps his father was a coward in the Great War. Dieter is small, delicate, and timid and like Spencer, is afraid he'll never have a chance to be a solider. Many of his decisions within the Hitler Youth are based on wanting to be known for his bravery and to be different than his father. 

The story flips back and forth between the boys as they prepare for combat. Not unexpectedly, Spencer finds that his training is much more difficult than imagined. Dieter digs anti-tank trenches with the Hitler youth to do his part in killing the "stinking Americans." He witnesses a friend deserting and being shot, but his devotion to his Fuhrer outweighs any sadness over his friend's death. 

As the story progresses towards the soldiers' inevitable meeting, the point of view switches quicker which increases the tension. The boys' beliefs in what they are doing push them forward and help them stay alive during freezing, snowy conditions. The reader views the Siege of Bastogne (part of the Battle of the Bulge) from both perspectives and sees how homesick both boys are at Christmas, how they kept warm in the trenches the same way, and how they both hear the order to fall back and retreat.
American soldiers of the 117th Infantry RegimentTennessee National Guard, part of the 30th Infantry Division, move past a destroyed American M5A1 "Stuart" tank on their march to recapture the town of St. Vithduring the Battle of the Bulge, January 1945. (Wikipedia

There are significant secondary characters in the story. Dieter's commanding officer, Schaffer, takes a father-like interest in Dieter and advises him not to get himself killed. Not until the end does Dieter realize that Schaffer was right and not the traitor he had supposed Schaffer to be. Spencer's friend Ted realizes that, "Out here you need to hate in order to kill them." Although he was similarly motivated as Spencer, he comes to believe, "We should not have wars."

The battle scene at the end is written in great detail. The ending is sad--how can a story about war not end without sadness? But Hughes redeems the ending by showing Dieter's changes: he quits the war and says he will think about it the rest of his life. 

Soldier Boys is obviously well-researched, but I didn't connect to the story emotionally. To be honest, that may have been because the narrator sounded dispassionate to me. I wasn't sure if that was on purpose--like a reporter narrating a news reel--or that was the narrator (Stephen Plunkett)'s way he interpreted the story. I was disappointed that so much time was spent in the book showing Spencer's paratrooper training, and yet a parachute never opened when they arrived in Europe. Perhaps that was what happened in "real life."

I recommend this book as one that boys will enjoy and as a classroom resource when studying World War II. It would provoke great
discussion about character motivation and why some young men enlist.

GIVEAWAY: Leave me a comment for a chance to win this audio CD along with your email address if you are new to my blog. I'm giving it away in conjunction with TALKING STORY's winter issue on Tough Topics. Leave a comment there and you'll be entered twice. Giveaway ends January 23. 

Monday, January 9, 2017

Bonnie Doerr: On Book Series, School Visits, and Story Lines

As promised last week, here is the follow-up interview with Bonnie Doerr, author of three eco-novels for middle grade students. 

CAROL: When you wrote Island Sting, did you have any idea that there would be two more books?

BONNIE: Island Sting is a rework of Kenzie’s Key. The publisher of Kenzie's Key went out of business, but the original editor had envisioned an entire series. When the miracle of a new publisher picking up KK and tweaking occurred, I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I hoped at least two more books would be born. The only thing I had going for me was the right of first refusal. There’s much more to this publishing tale. It involves the publisher that picked up KK going away, an editor sticking with Island Sting, and then Stakeout through a new company, then that publishing company being sold and... Oh enough already, this just gets boring, doesn’t it? But, yes, I always had an idea of at least three books, though the featured animals and wildlife organizations were not always so obvious to me. So, imagine the joy when I held the third, Tangled Lines, in my hand!

CAROL: What's next? A fourth Kenzie and Angelo book? 

BONNIE: As for another book, it will not be an additional Kenzie and Angelo story. Their story arc is complete. The story keeping me awake these days features a new locale with new characters who battle a different kind of environmental injustice.

CAROL: I can relate to a story keeping you up at night! Do you hear from teachers who are using your books in their classrooms? 

BONNIE: Teachers are using my books, but few know about them because they are not published by one of the big five houses. Word is spreading, however. I was invited to participate in an environmental program at a NC coastal science center after a PTA purchased copies of Stakeout for an entire sixth grade class, and a high school librarian near Tampa, Florida, received funding to purchase classroom sets of all three books for her ninth graders and to host my visit next February. Bookmarks literary organization has been incredibly supportive of my work sponsoring many school visits through their Authors in Schools program. Each visit resulted in wider classroom usage of the books.
Bonnie at Poplar Springs Elementary
Poplar Springs, NC

Most often a book is used to introduce the topic of endangered animals or, surprisingly, in sixth grades they’ve been discussed as a way to introduce research in writing units; a unique way to show how fiction requires research as well as nonfiction. More teachers are also finding them useful to support nature and conservation activities. Recently, at the YALSA Symposium in Pittsburgh, librarians were initially drawn to my books because they were described as contemporary, realistic literature that empowered teens. But upon learning more about the books, some also saw them as filling the niche of “hard to find” nature fiction for younger YA readers.

During school visits, teachers always seem interested in resources I’ve created for them on my website, but I honestly haven’t heard directly from anyone who’s used them. There’s little time for teachers to search out new ideas and less time to think of responding to an author about a particular lesson. It’s been interesting, though, to occasionally see one of my lessons on specific skill Internet resource pages, so educators must pick up one or two activities from time to time. Tangled Lines' project guide only recently available on my website is too new for any kind of response, so I have yet to get feedback on that.

CAROL: I'm glad to hear that some teachers are finding your books. But now is the $64,000 question...How many story lines ARE in Tangled?

BONNIE: I stopped counting at ten.

CAROL: Which shows you chose a perfect title. 

GIVEAWAY: Leave me a comment by Thursday, January 12 to enter the giveaway for an autographed copy of TANGLED. If you commented last week, you can add another entry to the hat! PLEASE leave your email address if I don't have it. 

Bonnie reading a portion from Stakeout.

Monday, January 2, 2017

Tangled Lines: A Review and an Autographed Giveaway!

With the publication of TANGLED LINES (Seek, 2016), Bonnie Doerr completes her eco-mystery series that began with ISLAND STING (2010) and STAKEOUT (2012). All three middle grade books star "detectives" Kenzie Ryan and Angelo Sanchez figuring out an ecological crime that threatens their beloved Florida Keys. 

Since many of you tell me you appreciate it when I interweave book reviews with comments on craft, this review will focus on three basic elements: The Beginning, Middle, and End using materials Barbara O' Connor provided at the fall SCBWI-Carolinas regional conference.


O' Connor says that the story's setup should include:
  • Whose story it is
  • Where the story takes place
  • What the story is about
  • A sense of the style or tone of the story
In the first two pages of TANGLED the reader finds Kenzie gathering Florida Keys' newspapers and shoving them in the recycling bin under her stilt house. As she performs this chore, she sees a picture of a Brown Pelican.
In the photo, the pelican's pouch was raggedly sliced from its beak, hanging loose like a war-torn flag. The caption screamed Pelicans Brutally Slashed. (p. 2)
She runs inside, shoves the paper in front of her mother and says, 
"This is sick." Kenzie's stomach churned. "It's inhuman. It's despicable!" .... A cinematic swirl of jagged knives, dripping blood, and murderous human eyes hijacked her brain. (p. 3) 
Within a few pages Doerr has shown that Kenzie's story is set in the Florida Keys. Even without the cover and book illustrations, readers will guess that environmentally-sensitive Kenzie's new mission is to save injured pelicans. Kenzie's quick call to action sets the tone for the book.  

O' Connor said that the setup should contain the catalyst (the event or action that starts the story) as well as a central question (what the problem is.) Do you see those elements in these brief snippets from TANGLED LINES? O' Connor mentioned that the setup should include relevant backstory. Doerr expertly intertwines the right amount of details from the previous two books without bogging down TANGLED. 


As Kenzie tries to find out who is hurting the pelicans, she turns to her Cuban-American friend Angelo Sanchez, who helped her solve previous eco-mysteries. But they've entered high school and things have changed between them. Angelo is spending time with a different girl (Estefania) and there's another guy who Kenzie thinks about. Complications ensue! 

Enter the middle of the book, which most writers agree, comprises about 50% of the story. O' Connor called this development and said it should include scenes that:

  • advance the story
  • reveal more about the character
  • and contain action that revolves around the central question or problem. 

Kenzie talks to her friend Ana about Angelo's lack of figuring out who is harming the pelicans. Ana reminds Kenzie that Angelo's father's business depends on selling fish caught by local fisherman. Kenzie determined that the birds were often injured by fishermen because the birds stole their bait and snatched their catch. 
"Ana, look. I get what you mean about Angelo and fisherman, but he said he wasn't interested because he had no time. I think Estefania Betancourt is the reason. Yeah, he has to work after school and weekends, but Christmas vacation starts in a week. He could make time then." (p. 75)

Angelo snoops around one of his father's fisherman's boats and finds a few suspicious items that worry him. Kenzie does a happy dance when he decides to join her on the pelican project. The story advances as the two follow clues and red herrings in their quest to figure out who is injuring the pelicans. Both Angelo and Kenzie discover parts of Angelo's past, adding more tangled lines to the story. They also begin to suspect illegal activity on one of the islands. In a flurry of excitement Kenzie reports to Angelo,
"Oh my gosh. I almost forgot to tell you. Donna at the Wildlife Center started keeping a chart of mile marker sections were injured pelicans are found. You'll never guess where they've found the most."
He was almost afraid to ask. "Where?"
"Mile markers 21-31. We're smack in the middle. There has to be a connection between abusing pelicans in Key West and abusing them around our islands. Something's going on. We have to figure it out and stop it." (p. 201) 


O' Connor said that the climax of the story should:

  • Answers the central question or solves the problem raised in the setup and happen just before the resolution.
The resolution:

  • Should show that everything was foreshadowed was resolved
  • The central question answered or the problem is solved
  • Show that the character has grown or changed
I can't tell you how Doerr weaves together all the story lines, because I don't want to spoil this book for you. Let's just say there is high adventure on open water (including a kidnapping and an almost-concussion), Kenzie and Angelo capture the bad guy, the pelicans AND island are saved, and a sweet romance create the perfect ending.

But since this is the last book in the series, I'll share this snippet. Angelo fixes Kenzie's broken necklace and with trembling hands clasps it around her neck. 
Angelo lifted the key pendant. "I'm sure glad your mom got this for you. Wish I could have bought it, though." His voice cracked. He hesitated, cleared his throat and continued. "Remember why I wanted you to have it?"
He made it sound like the right answer would be the key to solving a mystery, but a wrong answer would further complicate it. Like he was navigating uncharted waters. 
Kenzie had no clue. They were in such a comfortable place with each other now. What would happen when she admitted it? She tensed and gulped, "No."
Angelo carefully released the pendant and lowered his head. "It's one of a kind." Raking his hair back with his fingers, he breathed deep and long. "Yep. One of a kind. Just like you."  (p. 375-6) 
I challenge you to read TANGLED and figure out how many story lines are tangled and then untangled by the end of the book. I counted at least four. How many will you find?

For more information about Bonnie's books including curriculum resource material (she admits that the teacher in her doesn't know when to quit) and the inspiration behind each book, please visit her website.

For more information about Barbara O' Connor's books, please visit her website

For more information on this aspect of the writing craft see Beginnings, Middles, and Ends by Nancy Kress.

GIVEAWAY: You can enter this giveaway twice! Leave a comment today and I'll add your name to the list. Leave a comment on next week's blog when I interview Bonnie, and your name will go "in the hat" a second time. will pick a winner for this terrific classroom resource on January 12.  

THE DOUBLE CROSSING by Sylvia Patience: A Middle Grade Historical Fiction Review, Author Interview, & Giveaway

  Sylvia Patience , the author of The Double Crossing   ( Paper Angel Press, 2023),   reached out to me with a request to review her histori...